Frances Hodgson Burnett by Gretchen Gerzina

Blighted by the curse of Fauntleroy
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The Independent Culture

In 1889 Compton Mackenzie, later the author of Whisky Galore, suffered a childhood trauma, aged six: "The Lord Fauntleroy costume of black velvet and Vandyke collar was a curse. The other boys at the dancing class were all in white tops... After protesting in vain against being made to wear it I decided to make it unwearable by flinging myself down in the gutter on the way to dancing class... not only did I avoid the dancing class, but I also avoided being photographed in that infernal get-up."

In 1889 Compton Mackenzie, later the author of Whisky Galore, suffered a childhood trauma, aged six: "The Lord Fauntleroy costume of black velvet and Vandyke collar was a curse. The other boys at the dancing class were all in white tops... After protesting in vain against being made to wear it I decided to make it unwearable by flinging myself down in the gutter on the way to dancing class... not only did I avoid the dancing class, but I also avoided being photographed in that infernal get-up."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's son Vivian did not escape the curse so easily. Not only was he tagged for life as the prototype of Burnett's winsome hero, but he has been further betrayed by his grand-daughter, who loaned a photograph of him in "that infernal get-up" to the author of this new biography.

Despite this photographic evidence, and the many stories similar to Mackenzie's (which she may not know), Gretchen Gerzina dismisses the bulk of these childhood traumas caused by Burnett's book as "apocryphal". At her death, Burnett told "Vivvie": "I never could write anything that would bring unhappiness into the world," and Gerzina seems to be attempting to follow suit. Burnett for her is wreathed in a golden glow, and anything unpleasant is swept aside as quickly as possible.

Burnett was born Frances Hodgson in Manchester in 1849, to a modestly prosperous tradesman and his wife. Her father died when she was four, and the family sank quickly down the scale, from shabby genteel to outright poverty. His widow made one final effort and emigrated with her children to Tennessee where she hoped for financial help from her brother.

Aged 15, Fannie (or Fluffy, as one is rather shattered to discover she was known in adult life) became the breadwinner. She moved with Swan Burnett, her first husband, to Washington, and in 1886 hit the jackpot with Little Lord Fauntleroy. She began to shuttle between the east coast of America and England, rarely settling anywhere for long. After years of living separate lives, she and her husband divorced, whereupon she promptly married Stephen Townesend, an English doctor 10 years her junior, who may have blackmailed her into the marriage.

At the start of their relationship, when Lionel, one of her sons by her first marriage, was dying in Paris, she travelled to England with Townesend, spending a weekend with him in Bournemouth, visiting friends, attending the theatre. She later wrote that she had "never left" Lionel in this time, and told Vivian that "nobody will ever know what Mamma suffers".

Burnett's solipsism did not end there. Vivian, a young adolescent, living virtually alone in a house which his mother had abandoned, suggested getting rid of his brother's possessions. Burnett, across the globe, fired back: "One cannot sell or barter the things that have belonged to one made sacred by love & death... More than ever it made me feel I ought to be with you..." But she didn't rush back. Nor did the "sacredness" of "love & death" stop her negotiating for higher royalties for a book based on Lionel.

Burnett was probably no more or less unpleasant than anyone else, but the adoration lavished on her by her biographer does predispose the reader to carp. Gerzina uses material written by sources partial to Burnett (or even by Burnett herself) without noting the partiality in the text. She quotes one writer who says that Burnett was "remarkably clever for a child", but only tucked away in the endnotes do we discover that the writer was Burnett herself. Burnett's autobiographical writings, and her son's and daughter-in-law's hagiographies are the basis for much of Burnett's early life, with rarely a warning note sounded.

It might be possible to overlook this prejudice if we got some sense of what made Burnett one of the most successful authors of her day. Ann Thwaite, in her 1974 biography, did not have access to the Burnett family archives Gerzina has mined, but she produced a much more balanced picture of the difficult woman who yet bequeathed to the world two enduring classics, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. And she did it in stylish, elegant prose.

Gerzina's prose is at best workmanlike, at worst so entangled that her sentences end up merely as faint clues to what she is thinking ("Brave as she was in taking over Edwin's business, Eliza was no match for the combination of hard work and general economic downturn"); she appears uncertain about what she thinks (the location of Burnett's memorial changes from "ironic" to "fitting" within three pages); and finally she commits the fatal error of telling, not showing, rendering an unhappy woman tiresome rather than sympathetic.

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